the cmrc blog
[originally written for Aurora Orchestra blog]
but see the mud is on our shoulders
No listener, no performer, no composer can escape their personal musical histories and engage an ‘innocent ear’. We hear through a bespoke hall of mirrors that transforms fluctuating air pressure into something rich and meaningful.
We also inherit a cultural memory of attitudes and responses and repertories. For some this is a burden, for others raw material to be moulded anew. Now more than ever before there is a vast pool of musical experience available: virtually any music from virtually any age can be heard in a couple of clicks. The mud is on our shoulders.
Alongside the poet Frances Leviston, I’ve spent much of the last twelve months considering the topic of memory and exploring how the ideas and processes behind PETMEM technology might translate into musical possibilities. Frances has written a collection of five poems and I a four-movement string quintet, Emily’s Electrical Absence, to be interleaved between her texts. The memory of a crucial predecessor is woven into each of our works: for Frances, Emily Dickinson; for me, Franz Schubert.
PETMEM (Piezoelectronic Transduction Memory Device) is a low-voltage transistor that may transform computer hardware – processors using the technology could run 100 times faster than is currently possible. Speed is fun, but what really interested me was the physical process involved, in which a piezoresistive material is literally squeezed until it changes its electrical properties. Material under pressure: there’s a great deal of musical potential in this idea.
I’ve written about this piece before, back when it only had one movement and no title. It has grown and gained a name in the intervening months. The three new movements come at the start of the quintet, so the original movement has acquired a significant pre-history in its new context – in other words, its memories have been rewritten. (In certain circumstances it is possible to change the past.)
There’s an aspect of my attitude about being a composer that is like mourning. Say, for example, the death of art . . . something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me.
Memory creates the presence of an absence: something has been lost and is being grasped for; it is imperfect, incomplete, melancholic. We are haunted. But they are ghosts of our own making: my Schubert is not Feldman’s Schubert.
Perhaps all music, even the newest, is not so much something discovered as something that re-emerges from where it lay buried in the memory, inaudible as a melody cut in a disc of flesh.